Straight Talk

by Julia Kuzeljevich

Beating the obstacles to deliver the goods was the theme of this year’s Transpo 2006 conference and there was certainly no shortage of subject matter or debate as panelists discussed their strategies for the most pressing issues. Following are the highlights from the two-day event, sponsored by J.J. Keller, CrimsonLogic and Canadian Transportation & Logistics.

TORONTO, Ont. – Does Canada need an actual national transportation policy?

While many seem to pushing for this, David Bradley, head of the Canadian Trucking Alliance told delegates attending Transpo 2006 he’s not so sure a national policy that looks at transportation in isolation, and not as part of an overall vision for Canada, would achieve the results being sought.

“Maybe I am too cynical, but I recall what happened the last time there was an attempt to develop a national transportation policy. The result of that effort was the policy document, Straight Ahead, developed during the time of then-Transport Minister, David Collenette. Straight Ahead went nowhere, in large part I believe because it did not have sufficient buy-in, not only from the transportation industry, but also from the provinces and as importantly from other departments within the federal government.”

Bradley argued that rather than a freight transportation policy that recognizes and addresses economic issues while safeguarding public safety and the environment, what is really needed is an economic policy that recognizes and addresses freight transportation issues while safeguarding public safety and the environment.

Bradley was one of the four panelists in a session devoted to examining the policy situation for transportation across Canada. He was accompanied by Rob Bryson, director of Eastern Canadian Grain Operations, with Parrish and Heimbecker, Bruce Burrows, acting president & CEO of the Railway Association of Canada, and Kristine Burr, Assistant Deputy Minister, Transport Canada.

Bryson also questioned existing policy, like the Canada Transportation Act, for example, and whether it goes far enough when there is no mention of municipal governments, and when there is considerable focus on regions.

“Who speaks for a region?” he asked.

“Maybe we need two policies, with a separate focus for different regions,” suggested Bryson, and to reflect the fact that municipal governments are becoming more and more involved in infrastructure and port-related issues, he added.

The Act is also, he pointed out, essentially the product of 1996 policy, and a lot has developed since then (for example 9/11, SARS, the possibility of Avian Flu and its effect on commodity markets, etc.).

But there is cause for optimism.

With regard to the new government in power in Ottawa, Bradley said he was encouraged by the fact that the new Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon’s portfolio will include infrastructure and communities.

“In the former government I had four ministers all tell me, for example, that they were in charge of border infrastructure, which means no one was. I just hope this does not mean that he (Cannon) will be engaged mainly on transit issues,” said Bradley.

He also said that transportation policy development would benefit from more input from shippers.

“I found the ongoing debate over modal shift over the past number of years particularly frustrating as it seemed to me nobody asked shippers why they selected certain modes or what kind of service they wanted, ” he said.

Speaking on behalf of rail, Burrows, then-acting president of the Railway Association of Canada, said that status quo is not an option for railways in Canada.

“A key challenge remains investment. We have to contend not only with service challenges but the challenges of owning infrastructure,” he said, noting that rail spends some 25 per cent of its revenues on capital costs.

“There’s a need for equitable taxation (with how railways are taxed in the U.S.) We want government to encourage multimodal outcomes, and there are also labour issues in rail, with 50 per cent of the workforce to be retiring in the next four years,” noted Burrows.

Burr, assistant deputy minister with Transport Canada, noted that a recent change in Canada’s federal government means that the agency is still waiting to see what direction transportation policy will take.

She anticipated however that key priorities for the new government in Ottawa would probably include transport security, environment, competitiveness and enhanced productivity.

Of note is the possibility that connectors into key intermodal facilities and major border crossings will be considered for possible infrastructure funding, she added.

“Canada is the most trade-dependent country in the G8, and integration in the global environment is the name of the game,” said Burr.

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